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Feeling harmony ... how? what?

Am taking a trip back in history, today, away from Reger - to Franz Schubert. This is partly because I'm hoping to programme some movements from the Deutsche Messe in a concert soon. The harmony of Schubert is so different to Reger (in whose harmonic language I've been kind of saturated during the last few days) that my first thought was 'why is Schubert satisfied with so little chromaticism?' 

Extract from the opening of the Gloria in Schubert's Deutsche Messe

This is an example of Schubert's very plain, but (somehow) very expressive harmony. I don't think it's necessary to theorise or speculate on why this music works so well. Perhaps you might disagree. Ultimately, I can only say that I find it so.. what I'm interested in, is my assumption that so much depends on 'the harmony'. I'm starting to ask myself more and more, what I mean by this word Harmony - (I may refer to this sometimes as the H-element) - which is so pregnant with meaning for musicians.

I'll restrict myself to a couple of observations here: one, is that Schubert is using a very simple harmonic language to communicate an effective and equally simple march tune, or motif of triumph. Without this motif, we would have very little of interest. So, clearly there is no key or guarantee that, for example, a particular harmonic solution (i.e., a sequence of chords) results in expressivity: the H-element is simply a strong characteristic of Schubert's general expressive intention.

The other observation, is that, perhaps in revolt against the rather loaded concept of the H-element, and the sterile, abstract way in which we often imagine it functions, I have tried to imagine harmony more in contrapuntal terms, perhaps in the way that Ernst Toch proposes: as frozen (contrapuntal) motion. But this doesn't really wash ... If we look again at Schubert's opening, the contrapuntal motion is negligible. I hear and understand this music as chords - elegantly spaced and voiced, true, but certainly as chords. Perhaps an argument could be made that the chords are a kind of recognised shorthand, in which rich contrapuntal motion is implied or encoded, though not explicitly stated. Perhaps.. Certainly, there exists, for me, an expressive power in moving from one chord to the next, a power which I have tried to express as tonal centres. 

What is important is that in realising this, I can start to enjoy the simple power of chords. And with this enjoyment comes a new form of cognition, one that results from a slight, but definite shift in attention. How can I describe this? Through goals and referents perhaps? Before, playing chords was more of a chore, something unavoidable, a technique or skill to be mastered; in a word the goal was external. With this mindset, whenever I play a chordal texture, I become very self-conscious and question each movement against an unspecified referent. The fact that the referent is unspecified makes it no less intensive. In fact, the lack of specificity makes it numerous rather than single, and is presented in my working memory through several assumptions, i.e., J.S.Bach advised his students to write their chorale harmonisations on seperate staves to ensure independence of line, while observing the correct rules of voice-leading. I give this phrase as an example of something I know I have learnt, that in a dim way this phrase or knowledge forms my impression of Harmony as a task. It corresponds to an ideal harmony; it is external, declarative, something that I could write or read about in a book, discuss with colleagues etc., it does not correspond to my personal knowledge of doing things.

Enough for one post ... I'll stop with two conclusions from today's practice:

  • Harmonic (chord) movements are expressive in themselves.
  • That imposing conditions - rules or constraints - can generate frustration. Why?

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